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Théâtre des Champs-Elysées

In Review Paris Otello hdl 714
Rossinians Rocha, Bartoli and Osborn in Otello at the Champs-Elysées
© Vincent Pontent/WikiSpectacle 2014

A sold-out run of Rossini's Otello at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées triumphantly welcomed Cecilia Bartoli back to the Parisian stage on April 7; it had been more than twenty years since the mezzo had last sung an opera in the French capital. The production, by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, came from Zurich Opera, accompanied by the period instruments of the Ensemble Matheus under the direction of the diva's pet maestro of the moment, Jean-Christophe Spinosi.

Rossini's Otello was first heard in 1816, in Naples. Eclipsed in the twentieth century by Verdi's masterpiece from 1887, Rossini's work owes more to the bel canto tradition than to Shakespeare's play, but it comes into its own in a final act of groundbreaking fluidity. The denouement may be expedient, but the death scene is startling in its dramatic veracity. Bartoli's Desdemona seized the moment with breathtaking virtuosity. Her voice sounded in top form; her coloratura, as always, was remarkable, and its pinpoint accuracy remains a wonder. In the first part of the evening, Bartoli's habit of coloring each word at the expense of a firm legato line was evident, but all was forgiven when she sang the plaintive willow song, in which her melismatic, hushed vocalization suspended time in the theater and earned her a triumphant reception. 

Bartoli is not a natural tragedienne; here, she kept too obviously watchful an eye on the conductor. Leiser and Caurier's production set the work in the early 1960s, with a close-fitting little black dress for Bartoli, who brought daring dramatic commitment to the final scenes. The production saw the work as a racist drama; Desdemona and Otello had to marry in secret, as it was unthinkable that a mixed-race marriage could be openly admitted. References to Otello's color and African origins abound in the libretto, and Desdemona's xenophobic father, Elmiro, adds to the atmosphere of unbridled racial prejudice. Sometimes the point was labored: the black waiter in Christian Fenouillat's boxy Venetian palace was mistreated by his bosses, and Otello's retreat to a migrant's café to listen to comforting African folk music seemed improbable. However this was a functional production, which had touching moments, such as when Desdemona started up her scratchy period record-player to play and recall the introduction of the willow song.

Rossini's opera is difficult to cast: it requires a trio of leading men exuding tenor testosterone and Rossinian virtuosity for the roles of Otello, Iago and Rodrigo. The Champs-Elysées played a trump card with three exceptional and well-contrasted tenors to share the vocal honors with Bartoli. Outstanding in the title role was John Osborn, whose sturdy baritonal sound and noble dramatic presence lent authority to Otello, while rising to a gleaming upper register. The discovery of the evening was the lovesick Rodrigo of Edgardo Rocha, promised as the future husband to Desdemona. His lighter tenor was as secure in caressing a gentle bel canto line as in matching Osborn in top-note bravura, but physically he needs to relax onstage. Joining this duo of trumpeting divos was the Iago of Barry Banks, who, if not possessing the tonal richness of his two colleagues, was irresistibly stylish, dramatically devious and tidy in his coloratura. Great support came from Desdemona's angry father, Elmiro, firmly sung by baritone Peter Kálmán, and from deep-toned mezzo Liliana Nikiteanu as Emilia, a character who has a higher dramatic profile here than in Verdi's opera.

Spinosi was poorly received at the premiere but warmly applauded at the second performance, on April 9. The period instruments of the Ensemble Matheus have thin-sounding strings and accident-prone hand-stopped horns; the conductor's joyous vitality sometimes leads to disjointed and extreme tempos. However, despite moments of faltering ensemble, his energy and commitment to this festival of bel canto singing were never in question. spacer


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